An oft-repeated story in the Jaeger family is that of Peter Jaeger finding a black child along the Brazos River. In The Early Pioneer Families of Winedale, volume 1, Peter’s great grandson Henry C. Jaeger Jr. tells the story:
Another story of the freight line that my grandfather told me began with a load of freight he and two other men were taking to Houston. After crossing the Brazos River they camped out to eat and rest for a while before continuing their way to Houston. While they were resting my grandfather walked down to the river which was a short way from camp when he heard the cry of a small child. He thought it was a trick of the Indians to use the cry of a child to lure him away from camp and his backup men. He went back to the camp and got his shotgun and went in search of the child. He heard the child’s cry again, so followed it with great precaution. He found a small negro boy who was left along the river by other travelers. It was common in those days of slavery that large plantation owners would abandon their slaves’ children so that all of the slave’s time would be devoted to work. Grandpa said he took the small boy into the river and undressed and bathed him. He took his own shirt off and wrapped the child with it so he could wash the child’s clothing. He took him back to camp to warm up by the campfire. He took the child with him to Houston, unloaded the freight, and headed back home. He brought the child home with him, gave him a name–McNeil, as well as a home, and a place to eat and sleep. He reared him to become a well respected man. After McNeil became of age he decided to get married. Grandpa wanted to pay him for helping him on the farm so he offered him 100 acres of land or a team of oxen with a plow. McNeil chose the team of oxen and plow for there was plenty of land to get but nothing to plow with or raise a crop. McNeil and his wife were happily married and had three children. The two boys were named Henry and Lee McNeil and the daughter was Ella. She married Cephus Ray.
Using census records, marriage records, and my grandfather’s collection of obituaries, I established the following timeline.
August 25, 1833: Peter Jaeger is born in Hannover
1853: Peter leaves Germany and goes to Texas
1854: Peter begins working for the freight line that runs from Brenham to Houston.
February 6, 1854: Richard McNeil is born in Texas.
July 31, 1860: Census record shows Peter and Regina living in Washington County.
April 8, 1860: Peter marries Regina Ulrich.
1864: Their first child, Henry Claude Jaeger, is born
1886: Ella is born to Richard and Cealy McNeil
1906: Ella McNeil marries Cephus Ray
If Henry’s information is correct, Richard McNeil may have been the child who Peter found alongside the river in the late 1850s. But the rest of the story is up for speculation. It is unlikely that an unmarried Peter would have kept the child after rescuing him. Additionally, Richard’s death certificate lists William McNeil from North Carolina as his father and Ella McNeil from Virginia as his mother. But in the space where it asks for Richard’s place of birth, the death certificate simply says “Don’t know.”
And that is where we hit the proverbial brick wall. We don’t know. Was Richard indeed abandoned by his birth parents and found by Peter Jaeger? Did Peter give him to the McNeils? If so, what was Peter’s relation to William McNeil, the son of a slave belonging to the McNeil family, and his wife Ella? What was the child’s name before he was called Richard?
We will likely never know the answers.